Monday, December 10, 2007

Being a Better Human

Arthur is my local theater community's resident crackpot old guy. He shows up to any and all auditions that have a male role. He volunteers for set building. If there is a theater holding auditions anywhere in town, you will see him walking down the side of the road in grubby slacks, a disheveled plaid shirt and maybe an old cardigan, his head looking cold with it's sparse covering of wispy white hair as he plods along, determined to attend the audition.

Basically, Arthur is a crazy old man. I don't think he's literally "crazy." I suspect that he has some psychological issues which have been compounded by old age, a difficult personality and many years of lonliness. I do not know his "story." I think he lives in a place downtown that houses low income elderly people. I have never seen him with anyone when he is out walking. He has never mentioned friends or family, but he does not usually talk about himself.

He is not an easy person to talk to or to be around. Arthur communicates in an awkward, stilted manner. His readings are typically a monotone drone interspersed with brief glimspes of warmth. In a show, he has to be watched for backstage directing - he will go up to your lead and tell her she skipped a line. His "directions" are obnoxious and misguided, but closer examination reveals them to be genuinely well intended. There are stories about directors casting him and then having huge problems. You have to provide him with specific and clear directions and appear to be taking his concerns seriously or he becomes mule-like in his refusal to cooperate. It's inconvenient and unprofessional, but it's also community theater. Although Arthur rarely gets cast, there IS a higher level of tolerance than would exist in a professional setting.

This weekend Arthur turned up - two hours late - to an audition I was at. Everyone froze as if a violent escaped mental patient had just wandered in. He has had some sort of surgery on his ear recently so he had bandages on one side of his head which added to his disconcerting appearance. In place of a headshot and resume he handed the director a sheet of paper. When I leaned to the side to catch a glimpse of it, I saw that he had handwritten a resume - covering the entire front and back of a worn page in uneven lines of blue ink.

We were essentially done with the auditions by the time he arrived. The few lingering actors looked around nervously and then rushed the door like rats jumping ship. The director and stage manager stood there uncertain what to do. I could see that if they allowed him to read at all it would be him reading alone on the stage. Arthur was going to be left feeling it was mere formality. Which I am fairly certain it was... But he had walked roughly 2 miles to get there and his intentions were earnest and I hadn't left yet. So I asked the director (who appeared willing to accomodate him, just unsure how do accomplish that) what she would like us to read. We read one of the selections together and when we were done Arthur packed up his things (he always carries a little bundle of papers and a book or two with him) and headed out. He seemed satisfied.

If any other actor had shown up at the last minute, a couple of the young women who were desperately vying for the lead would have leaped at the chance for another read. Another shot to show what they could do. No one wants to help when that last minute actor is Arthur.

We all encounter people like Arthur now and then. Perhaps I would be less inclined to look past Arthur's difficulties if I had not grown up with a close relative who was severely mentally ill. But I know first hand that just because someone behaves oddly or has difficulty communicating does not mean they are a bad person. Functioning in this world is more difficult for the elderly and alone and can be a great deal harder for the mentally ill. But Arthur is still trying. He wants to contribute. He wants to be a part of the community. He doesn't appear to have anyone and he knows how most of the world sees him. He still shows up and shrugs off the whispers and the nervous giggles and he tries.

I wish that when people ran into someone like Arthur, they wouldn't just run the other way. The mentally ill or impaired typically KNOW when they're being dismissed. So many other people have done the same to them. It doesn't take a lot of effort to interact with them in a respectful way. The difficult thing that it requires is overcoming your own fear and awkwardness about interacting with someone who is different and who may have trouble communicating constructively. Most of the time, I think they appreciate just being talked to instead of ignored or overlooked. I know Arthur does.

At first I thought to myself that it was unfortunate that this in no way related to the holiday season which is upon us - and on which I typically focus my posts at this time of year. Then I realized this does relate to the season. Quite sharply, now that I think about it. In this season of giving, what greater gift is there than to give someone a little bit of their dignity back?


  1. This really really touched me. Thanks. It's almost like I see someone like Arthur and sometimes I think: "there by the grace of God ..."

  2. Thank you, Sheila. I think that reminding ourselves that that could have been us or our loved one is invaluable.

    Everyone looks at me like I'm crazy when I'm so patient with Arthur, but then - they never met my Stepfather and I don't think they would have known how to interact with him, either.

  3. My grandfather is not mentally ill he's just getting older and this is the way people treat him too. How hard it must be to be brilliant in a room full of your family and not have anyone talk to you because you are hard of hearing and slow to respond...

    As hard as it is to discuss the discovery of a new star or some other thing that he found on the internet that in no way impacts my world, i stay and chat because i realize this is all he wants, all i would want... the attention of loved ones.

    Good for you for realizing that something you can do, that takes less than 10 minutes of your time, probably made this mans day.